Net Migration Is Behind Population Loss

More people are choosing to leave nonmetropolitan counties than are choosing to move there. A new chart from the Economic Research Service shows the trend is universal in nonmetropolitan counties, though there are some bright spots.

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It seems like common sense to state that nonmetropolitan America is losing population because people are leaving. But there’s another reason populations fall – when the number of deaths in a county exceeds the number of births. This is called the natural increase or decrease. The other type of population change – migration – measures whether residents are leaving or moving into a particular county.

In case there was any doubt about which of these factors is the bigger cause of rural America’s population decline, this new chart from USDA Economic Research Service sets the question to rest. (See more from the ERS here.)

More people are leaving nonmetropolitan America than are moving there. That’s true for all categories of nonmetropolitan counties, from the biggest ones that are closest to cities all the way to the smallest and most remote ones.

Nonmetropolitan counties with small cities are still gaining population because there are more babies being born than there are people dying. But even those small-city areas are seeing more people move out than in. Presumably those migrants are heading to larger cities, which have a net gain in migration.

The chart tells the story.

It breaks counties into eight different categories using a neat tool called the Rural Urban Continuum codes, devised by the folks at ERS.

The bars on the left side of the graph are the most urban. These are counties in two different types of metropolitan statistical areas – ones with more than a million residents and ones with fewer than a million residents.

Note how the bars for those first two sets of columns on the left (the metropolitan ones) are in positive territory. Red shows net change in population, orange shows the change resulting from natural increase, and the blue bars show the population change resulting from migration – the folks who pack up and move on.

Metropolitan America is seeing gains in both natural increase (births over deaths) and migration (folks moving in from other areas).

But the story changes when you move to the next category of counties, which are the largest nonmetropolitan areas. These are counties that are close to a metro area and have a relatively sizeable number of people living in small cities.

From this point on, every type of nonmetropolitan county is seeing more people leave than arrive (represented by the blue bars).

The first two categories of rural counties maintain population growth, but that’s because of natural increase, not because more people are choosing to move there than are leaving.

In the next two sets of columns (RUC 6 and 7) the number of births over deaths isn’t sufficient to overcome the outmigration of residents, and there’s a net population loss.

And in the final two categories of counties (the most rural on the right of the graph), the counties are in negative territory both in natural decrease and migration.

There’s one interesting exception to the generally downward trend in population change as you move toward more rural counties. RUC 5 had a much higher population gain than RUC 4. Why is that? Like RUC 4, RUC 5 counties are nonmetropolitan and have a relatively large number of people living in small cities. The difference is RUC 5 counties are not adjacent to metropolitan areas. So these counties are outliers, both in demographic and geographic terms.

If urban sprawl was causing this population gain, we'd expect to see the counties closer to urban areas growing at a faster rate. That's not happening. Rather than benefitting from economic spillover from a metropolitan area, these counties may have generated their own conditions. Have those conditions staunched the flow of outmigration to a dribble and contributed to a higher birth rate? That's a question worth exploring.



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